British Columbia is committed to using Canada’s direct-to-cellphone alerting system for natural disasters beyond tsunamis, but the provincial emergency planning agency did not say if it is possible before the end of this summer’s historic wildfire season.
At a wildfire briefing on Thursday, Pader Brach, executive director of regional operations at Emergency Management BC (EMBC), said his organization is examining how to employ the Alert Ready system more widely after The Globe and Mail reported on Thursday that B.C. is the only province that hasn’t issued a direct-to-cellphone alert since this national system became available three years ago. Emergency officials in Alberta have used Alert Ready more than 70 times since 2019 – including 25 times for wildfires.
“We know that minutes count and we’re certainly committed to making the Alert Ready system a priority,” Mr. Brach said. “Right now, we recognize that Alert Ready would complement some of the many tools that are available to local communities and the public when it comes to evacuations.”
Mr. Brach said the agency can now use Alert Ready for tsunamis, Amber Alerts and “civil disturbance hazards.” He said the system in B.C. wasn’t ready to be deployed during last month’s unprecedented heatwave, which has been linked to hundreds more unexpected deaths than would be normal at that time of the year. It was not used when thousands of people were told to evacuate their homes as wildfires spread this month, or for the massive blaze that nearly obliterated the village of Lytton and killed two residents.
Mr. Brach said the agency is looking at including forest fire evacuations and potentially dangerous heatwaves.
“We have to make sure that we get it right when we utilize Alert Ready and make sure that it complements and augments and doesn’t cross wires with some of the current alerting systems that are out there,” Mr. Brach said.
Brian Frenkel, president of the Union of B.C. Municipalities, said on Thursday that all 189 local governments in his organization are in favour of using the system.
“It may be a little difficult right now to get it up and implemented during the middle of the [wildfire] season – but we have to make sure that EMBC makes it a priority to utilize it and add it to the tools that we have,” said Mr. Frenkel, a councillor in Vanderhoof, near the geographical centre of the province.
“Three of the last five years have been the worst fire years on record, and climate change is real, and this is happening way more often than it did in the seventies, eighties and nineties, so we all have to get on board and make sure that things work.”
He said his organization is committed to working with the province to use the system effectively.
Kamloops Mayor Ken Christian, whose city has been ringed by wildfires in recent weeks, said Alert Ready, or any other software system, is urgently needed in evacuations.
“The current system of door knocking is woefully inadequate,” he told The Globe on Thursday in an e-mail.
Barbara Roden, Mayor of the Village of Ashcroft, added that people in a crisis are hungry for information.
“And if it comes from a reputable source, like the government, then people will know that it’s accurate, it’s legitimate, as opposed to all the misinformation, the rumours that spread so quickly on social media,” she said in an interview on Thursday.
Ms. Roden said her community implemented an emergency system called Voyent Alert this spring. Several others, such as Port Alberni and Nanaimo, use this system.
“It has been very successful for the Village of Ashcroft in getting messages particularly about the wildfire situation. People know it, they trust it. Lots of people have signed up for it because it’s very easy to use,” Ms. Roden said.
However, only Alert Ready can make “broadcast intrusive” warnings pop up on all TVs, radios, and cellphones in an area at once.
Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth said expanding Alert Ready needed to be done, and acknowledged it has capabilities the province’s warning systems lack.
BC Liberal caucus spokesperson Andrew Reeve said in an e-mailed statement that his party does not understand why the province does not use the system more widely.
“The Alert Ready system in B.C. has seen extensive upgrades in recent years, so there is now no reason that this government shouldn’t be utilizing every tool in the toolbox to keep British Columbians safe,” his statement said.
Years ago, when the CRTC asked organizations across Canada if systems facilitating direct-to-cellphone alerting were necessary, EMBC and other provincial departments said such capabilities would be useful in all manner of calamities.
“The province would see issuing a wide-area intrusive alert for events such as tsunamis, earthquakes, wildfires, flooding, or major hazardous material events,” reads the B.C. government’s CRTC submission in 2016.
The document added that the long-term plan was to “allow key stakeholders to access the alerting system in their jurisdiction.”
With a report from Colin Freeze
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